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Elderly and healthy

Scripps study takes different approach to wellness among older people

Eric Topol of Scripps Clinic wants to uncover the genetic underpinnings of getting old and staying healthy.

Topol directs the Wellderly study, which is exploring the DNA of those who not only have lived beyond the age of 80, but are healthy and free of chronic disease. While most medical research focuses on illness, the Wellderly study focuses on health.

The researchers are looking for specific genes, known as protective alleles, which protect people from disease and illness. These “modifier” genes cancel out other genes that put people at a higher risk for conditions such as breast cancer or heart disease.

Although the study initially had some difficulty finding qualified participants because healthy people are unlikely to be found in doctor’s offices or hospitals, the study now has hundreds of participants, many of them La Jolla residents, Topol said.

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“It’s kind of become the super senior Facebook,” said Dr. Topol. The study, which will continue for years and has started the process of sequencing specific genes, is also starting to garner national attention from media outlets such as ABC news.

“We’ve made a lot of progress. It’s exciting to see,” said Topol, who noted that the field of genetic research is making discoveries every week.

Topol, who is director of Scripps Genomic Medicine, said lifestyle and genetics are both at work in influencing health. While most of the Wellderly participants have led a healthy lifestyle, many have not. One, for example, is a 97-year-old man who smokes two packs of cigarettes a day.

Another participant is La Jollan H. Bud Hauslein, who gave his DNA sample to the Wellderly study on his 80th birthday on June 18.

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The author of “Playing the Odds: Live to Your Life Expectancy and Beyond” who recently spoke at the La Jolla Library, he said he takes no prescription medication and exercises an hour a day.

He said in a recent interview that he wrote the book “to encourage and educate the general public not to view chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, adult diabetes and medical conditions as totally up to fate.”

Hauslein’s interest in the medical science behind a long life was sparked about 10 years ago because his mother was 90 years old and still living and her mother had lived to 100. He said he wanted to see if he would inherit a predisposition to a long life span.

In his spare time he began reading medical journals on the subjects, and after about five years of research, he asked a question about heart disease to a professor of epidemiology at UC Berkeley.

The professor wrote back that he didn’t have the answer to the question, but that Hauslein was a good researcher and perhaps he should write a paper or book.

“So I did it,” said Hauslein, who researched his book at the biomedical library at the University of California, San Diego.

Anyone interested in Topol’s study and prospective participants should call (800) 727-4777 and ask for the Wellderly Study.